Judaism 101: Sin and Forgiveness

Judaism 101: Sin and Forgiveness June 29, 2013

Growing up as an evangelical Christian, much of my beliefs about God revolved around forgiveness. I believed that as humans, we were all sinners, and that sin demanded forgiveness and that forgiveness could only come from God through the death of his son, Jesus, on the cross. Without Jesus’ death to atone for our sins, I believed, we could not be forgiven for a single one of them and would still bear their blackness—the consequences of which were death. Of course, I was always taught that Christianity was based upon the foundation of Jewish beliefs, which is why I find this week’s installment of Judaism 101, in which the panelists discuss the Jewish view of forgiveness—which is completely unlike the Christian view—so very interesting. And now, on to our panelists!


Judaism differentiates between sins towards God (eg breaking the rules of kashrut, desecration of shabbat) and sins towards another person (eg spreading gossip, stealing). Prayer, fast and giving to charity are considered the ways to redeem oneself from sins to God, but to redeem oneself from a sin to another person one must obtain the forgiveness of the victim first (followed by prayer, fasting and charity). However if one repents and asks for forgiveness on several separate occasions and the victim refuses to forgive out of spite, the transgression becomes that of the one who refuses to forgive.

The tradition is that from rosh hashana to yom kippur God determines who has unrepented sin on their ‘account’, and based on that determines if the person lives or dies during the year that follows.


Ki Sarita

Yes exactly, in the days before yom kippur people would call each other and ask for forgiveness. although sometimes it seemed kind of rote and formulaic , if someone really did have something pressing on our conscience but were too embarrassed to initiate, it could be a good opportunity. although it didn’t work that way for me, having some real grievances with my family I’ve completely avoided the forgiveness ritual.

I recall a friend who had been ostracized, calling her family before Kippur and reminding them that while they were praying and all they should know they had a daughter/ sister who was still hurting and who did NOT forgive them.



Ki Sarita, you touch upon a really good point. Yom Kippur isn’t just about asking for forgiveness, it’s also about granting forgiveness to those who have sinned against you. Hashem can forgive you for sins you’ve done against Him, but He *cannot* forgive you for sins you’ve committed against other people: you must ask direct forgiveness from them. This puts different obligations on the sinned and those sinned against, and there’s a weird trap in here.

So, if you can’t be forgiven unless the other person forgives you, what happens if the other person won’t forgive you?

Maimonides says, “when you ask someone for forgiveness, he or she is allowed to turn you down. If this happens, you should return a second and third time, with three witnesses, and try apologizing again. If the victim won’t forgive you after three tries, then you’re considered to have atoned, even if you haven’t been granted forgiveness.”

So, when we learned about this in my Jewish day school, immediately what would happen is people would gather in groups and go, “do you forgive me? Do you forgive me? Do you forgive me? Hah, I’m forgiven!” The next day — maybe even the next class period — they would go back to bullying. Obviously, there was no intent of actually changing behavior — but the letter of the law had been observed!

But what about the people who have really, really done something horrible to you — I’m thinking of emotional abuser here — and then ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur? And they might seem sincere, and they might genuinely be remorseful, but you know that they’re going to go back and do the same bad behavior all over again? Do you forgive them?


Ki Sarita

That didn’t happen in my class. Your class missed the part of maimonides where he talks about repentance as a lengthy process—and stopping to sin is the very first stage.



I’ve thought about that too.  How would our formula for repentance and forgiveness work for abuse, not just mistakes or the normal emotional wear and tear of relationships. Abuse is not a mistake, and should not be treated as just a mistake when asking for forgiveness. Personally I think it could work, but only if done very thoroughly and with great intention. There has to be a true and lasting change of behavior in order to legitametly be able to ask for forgiveness.

This is what I learned about the rituals of forgiveness.

T’filah, Teshuvah, Tzedakah. T’filah (te FEE lah) prayer, teshuvah (te SHUE vah) repentance/return, tzedakah (tze DAH kah – the tz sound is like the ts sound in mitts) justice, reparative action.  I know tzedakah often gets used like the word charity, we have tzedakah boxes to drop spare change into until they’re full then donate the money to charity, but the root of tzedakah is tzedek, justice, or also righteousness, and I see the conection that it takes dedicated money and resources to bring about justice in this world.  (BTW, the Hebrew word tzedek is related to the Arabic word zadek, which also means justice and charity.  I checked that with a Muslim friend at work).

I don’t think of t’filah as just going through specific prayers by rote, instead I think of some of the sayings about prayer that we have.  “Prayer cannot water an arid field – but it can water an arid heart, rebuild a weakened will, mend a broken soul.”  Or the other saying, “Whoever rises from their prayers a better person, their prayer has been answered.”  So I see this as an inward reflection to think about what you’ve done, prayer as a way of getting back in touch with the best of who you really are.  It’s connecting to God, but more importantly connecting to the pure soul you started with in this world – Elohai neshema shenatatah bi tehorah hi/My God, the soul you have given me is pure – and strengthening the yetzer ha-tov, the capacity for goodness that we were created with.  Meditation, reflection, prayer, whatever works.

Teshuvah gets often gets translated as repentance but it really means to return.  Traditionally it’s about returning to God’s laws/mitzvot, or more broadly return to proper behavior.  If you are trying to improve yourself and you make a mistake, screw up, or self-sabatoge, return to the path of improvement you were on. Be kind to yourself, forgive yourself, and try again. For someone who’s been abusive in their past, teshuvah might be returning again and again to the choice to be patient, to be kind, or returning to the choice to deliberately NOT let anger dominate their emotional reflexes.

Tzedakah is the last step of this. It’s taking responsibility to fix some of the damage caused by your misdeeds or abusive acts. For a Pearl style abusive family situation, it could be the husband supporting his wife to go back to school for her own dreams to make atonement for all the times she had to deny that she had any dreams of her own in order to support his. He could speak out to other men about the damage this lifestyle causes and try to help other men avoid the abusive choices he’s made.  Or if he really wanted to do some tzedakah he could volunteer at Planned Parenthood as an escort. What Anat said about donating money to charity is a common way to do tzedakah, so a man who’s trying to repent from an abusive relationship could donate money to organizations that work to prevent sexual abuse, or help people out of abusive relationships.

Parents could follow up with apologizing to their grown children by helping them make non-violent parenting choices and break generational family abuse, and stop abusing younger children. They could donate money, or time, to crisis shelters, or just speak out online about the consequences of following the Pearls to warn others to not even start. There are so many ways that teshuvah can lead to tzedakah so that the person asking for forgiveness is really worthy of forgiveness.

But just apologizing and then doing the same sinful or abusive behavior over again is not enough for forgiveness.  In my High Holy Days prayer book there are quotes about forgiveness from all different sources.  From the Mishnah I’ve got these quotes:

“One who says: I will sin and repent, then I will sin again and repent again, is not really repentant.  And one who says: I will sin, and the Day of Atonement will atone for me, will find that day will not avail for atonement.”

“For transgressions against God, the day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions against one human being against another, the day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”

“Friends, what does it say about the people of Ninevah? Not, “God saw their sackcloth and their fasting.” but, “God saw their deeds – that they turned back from their evil ways.” (Jonah 3:10) and in his admonition, the prophet says: “Rend your hearts, and not your garments” (Joel 2:13)

From the Talmud:

“Who is truly repentant? The one who, when the temptation to sin is repeated, refrains from sinning.”

This is my favorite quote from the Talmud on these pages:

“What do you call ‘profaning God’s name?” Rav said, “In my case, since I am reputed to live strictly under the discipline of Torah, it would be failing to pay the butcher promptly.”

I always liked that saying, implying honest and timely business transactions were the most important thing a righteous person could do to keep from sinning against God.  I know there is one tradition that when you die the first question God asks you is “Were you honest in your business?” I suppose it sounds silly to be this concerned with business ethics over more spiritual matters of belief and faith, if you are used to hearing that faith alone will save you from hell.  But think about how much corruption in business and government can destroy whole nations, all of the dishonest business practices that right now concentrate wealth away from 99% of the population.  I don’t think it is trivial at all that honest business ethics are worth this much consideration. With or without God, honest business is hugely important, literally a matter of life or death sometimes.  It’s a little off topic, but I just wanted to share it because I like this quote and I think it makes a statement about how much our tradition values ethical behavior that it merits being in the prayer book for the holiest day of the year.

What Anat said about God counting up your sins and deciding between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur who will live and who will die, that’s from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer from the High Holy liturgy.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,

Who by sword and who by wild beast,

Who by famine and who by thirst,

Who by earthquake and who by plague,

Who by strangulation and who by stoning,

Who shall have rest and who shall wander,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,

Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree

In my book the last line is “Repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree”

I don’t literally believe in God, complete with a long white beard, sitting on a cloud on high checking us all off in his little black book of life and death. But it is a time for intense reflection on the sins of the past year, with hopes to do better next year.  I do see how using the 3T process to stay connected with ourselves and the people around us makes it easier to deal with life, both the good and the bad. How well this system actually works, your mileage will vary, a lot, depending on the people using it. It can be abused and used as a façade without a real change of heart just like any other system.  But if the people involved take it seriously I think it can do a lot of good.

Here is Leonard Cohen’s cover of this prayer: Who By Fire

And a few quick links about Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, for those following at home.

Rosh Hashanah

The Days of Awe, the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur

Anat, you mentioned prayer, fasting, and charity.  I keep the Yom Kippur fast, it’s one of the most important ritual mitzvot for me.  I also bring a bag or two of groceries to temple which get taken to a local food shelf, that’s one of my temple’s Yom Kippur traditions.  We bring in about 6,000 lbs of food, and they always know exactly when Yom Kippur is each year!  This is an example I’ve used to explain the difference of sins against God vs sins against other people: if I had to choose only one mitzvah for Yom Kippur, it would be the bag of food.  I can atone for not fasting, not praying, not hearing the shofar, going to work if I have to, or missing any of the other ritual observances of Yom Kippur – I can always make them up next year. But that food shelf depends on us each year, and people who depend on that food matter more than ritual.  I know I could always donate the next day, but hypothetically if I was forced to do one or the other, no cheating, I’d donate two bags of food and go to work and eat like a normal day.

“Only that fast is good which helps us move toward that transformation of self and society whose achievement is the ultimate end of our worship on Yom Kippur.”—Chaim Stern, the rabbi who edited most of Reform prayer books.

This is why I included my prayer books as important religious text.  I’m fasting, dressed to the nines, wearing my kippah and tallit (I don’t usually wear my tallit except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that’s the one with Elohai Neshema on it) surrounded emotional intensity of the day, and *this* is what I’m reading.  It has left its mark on me, forming how I think about repentance and forgiveness. Personal experience has influenced me as well, but so has Yom Kippur.


Ki Sarita

Is no one on board with me with Maimonides idea that some sins are not fully atoneable until death? I guess that paragraph of his wasn’t any more popular among the reform than among the orthodox, although his word was otherwise often the definitive word on repentance. Maimonides though applied this idea to “profaning gods name,” which however you explain that, would be very hard to make it palatable to the modern ear. I think we need to be careful to not selectively focus on positive quotes.



I think that there are unforgivable sins that can only be atoned for with death, but they’re pretty high up there on the scale of evil.  I do recall learning that if the person you sinned against is dead then no one else can forgive you in their place and you are just going to have to tough it out in the afterlife to atone for committing murder or whatever else you did. We’ve been talking about Yom Kippur, but this weekend of 4/6/13 is Yom HaShoah – Holocaust remembrance day.  Yes, there are unforgivable sins that can only be atoned for with death.

What you said about selective quotes—I was trying to stay on topic and not go on too long, which I sometimes worry that I do too much. I think Judaism can be a wonderful way to live, but I’m under no illusions that it can also be a terrible way to live. In that I don’t see our religion as any different, better or worse than any other religion. It’s true that our texts have a lot to say about ethical behavior in life and business, but we also have Bernie Madoff so it’s not like there aren’t plenty of scandals as well. Reading for this panel I’m running into the limits of how much Reform selectively picks and chooses and learning how much I don’t know. Also, I’ve no personal, real life experience with Jewish fundamentalism and orthodoxy.  I’ve been hesitant to talk about that because I don’t want to bash something I’ve no firsthand experience with.




Ki Sarita, you are absolutely right that my school did not teach us the importance of genuine repentance. My school was one of those that focused very much on seeming to be pious, but would ignore things like bullying as long as the bullies’ parents donated enough money to the school. Years after I’d left — partially due to their hypocrisy and cruelty — I found out that the principal of the school, a rabbi, had been embezzling money from the school in order to send his family on vacations. Way to be a light unto the nations, Rabbi!




I really don’t have much to say about the prayers specific to Yom Kippur, but when I was 14 I started reading one of the aliyot for minhag (I read the same one for a few years in a row) and I remember one of the verses from it very vividly: ‘Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa’. Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor. And there was a very compelling piece of commentary associated with it.
The word used for ‘neighbor’ is “re’echa”. This literally means someone who lives in our community. The author of the Torah (whether Hashem or someone else) chose not to use the other word usually used in these scenarios, which is “achicha”, or ‘brother’. The author chose to use a word that describes everyone in your community, not just those who share your ideals or beliefs. According to this commentator (I forget who, sorry), Jewish people have an obligation to EVERYONE, not just each other. This lines up very well with Hilary’s food drive, the volunteer work we did at the local Salvation Army, and with the general principle of Tikkun Olam.



Ki Sarita, is this the same text you’re referring to?

Even though repentance atones for all transgressions, as does the very aspect of the Day of Atonement, there are nevertheless some sins which are not atoned for immediately upon repentance, and there are some which are atoned only after some interval [after repentance]. If, for example, one had transgressed a positive commandment which does not carry a penalty of excision and one then repented, one is not atoned until one has been forgiven,, for it is written, “Return, faithless children, and I will restore your decline”. If, for example, one had transgressed a negative commandment which does not carry a penalty of excision or death and one then repented, then one’s repentance is held in suspense, and the Day of Atonement completes the atonement, for it is written, “For on that day He will forgive you”6. If, for example, one had transgressed a commandment which carries a penalty of excision or death and one then repented, then one’s repentance and the atonement of the Day of Atonement are held in suspense, and one’s death completes the atonement. Full atonement is never really achieved until the punishment is carried out, for it is written, “…then I will punish their transgression with the reed, and their iniquities with lashes”. This is talking only about a situation where one hadn’t desecrated God’s Name when one transgressed, but if one had desecrated God’s Name then even if one repented and the Day of Atonement arrived and one received one’s punishment, one’s atonement is completed only after one’s death, for it is written, “And it was revealed to me by the Lord of Hosts; surely this iniquity shall not be forgiven for you till you die”.

I’m actually pretty on board with the idea that atonement for transgressions takes time (which would help with my qualms about forgiving abusers), and that atonement for sins that would require the death penalty are fully atoned with death, but this doesn’t require an executioner here on Earth. It’s almost like, well, then these sins that you have done all the repenting for here on Earth, well, you’ll be spending more time in Gehinnom then.

Also, this isn’t like, atoning for mixing up meat and milk pans or being rude to someone at work. If it’s not discussed often, it might be because it’s not very applicable to everyday life.

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